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The Tumultuous Lives of Three Monks: Thich Nhat Hanh, Thich Tri Quang, and Thich Quang Do

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Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (left), Venerable Thich Tri Quang, and Venerable Thich Quang Do. Source: PVCEB, LIFE, AFP.

Long ago, there lived three monks: Thich Nhat Hanh, Thich Tri Quang, and Thich Quang Do. All three were well-versed in the Buddhist Dharma. Nhat Hanh spoke eloquently and wrote well. Tri Quang had talent for leadership and was trusted by the masses. Quang Dao was well-studied and excelled in foreign languages. 

Long ago, there lived three monks.

When Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime cracked down on Buddhism, these three combined forces to fight back. Nhat Hanh campaigned overseas, calling for peace and religious freedom in Vietnam. Tri Quang led tens of thousands of monks and Buddhist adherents as they protested in Saigon. And Quang Do, the youngest of the trio, stood side-by-side with these Buddhists as they marched on the streets.

Long ago, there lived three monks. 

When the communists arrived, the paths of these three diverged. Nhat Hanh became world-famous with his Plum Village Monastery. Tri Quang was imprisoned and refrained from speaking about politics again. Quang Do continued the struggle for religious freedom and human rights, ultimately serving the longest period of house arrest of any monk in Vietnam.

1997

One day in October of 1997, in a theater in Berkeley, California, approximately 3,500 people, who paid US$20 a ticket to meet their most beloved monk, sat in silence.

A ringing bell echoed across the theater, and a monk’s voice loudly called out: “All rise!”. Zen Master Nhat Hanh, draped in a deep brown robe, lead 35 monks and nuns as they slowly spread out across the stage. 

Many in the audience clasped their hands before their chests and directed their eyes towards the stage. Sitting on a high podium next to a large, bronze bell and an arrangement of giant sunflowers, Zen Master Nhat Hanh began expounding on mindfulness. “Learn how to stop running,” he advised his audience. “Many of us have been running all our lives.”

“Society is very individualistic, selfish, with people thinking about himself or herself alone. Each for himself, each for herself alone. But in fact even if you have the desire, the intention, to help others, it would still be difficult for you to do so, because when you are not in peace with yourself, it’s very difficult to relate to people in a peaceful way in order to help them,” he stated to reporter Don Lattin of the San Francisco Chronicle.

By that point, Zen Master Nhat Hanh had become internationally renowned for this talks on mindfulness and world peace. After 1975, he stopped speaking to the international media about human rights in Vietnam, even though Buddhism there was suffering through hardship.

At the same time, in a prison cell thousands of miles away from America, Venerable Quang Do was compiling a Buddhist dictionary. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 1995 for helping flood victims in the Mekong Delta. Ten years before that, he witnessed his mother pass away in hunger and poverty after the government exiled both to Thai Binh.

In 1997, Venerable Tri Quang grew accustomed to his comfortable life. He no longer spoke about politics or peaceful resistance.

After 1975, he was confined to a wheelchair to heal his feet, which had atrophied after government torture, according to a monk who was imprisoned with him at the time. From the 1980s onwards, the international media stopped mentioning him and the tragedies of Buddhism in the south.

Childhood in chaos 

Born during the tumult of French and Japanese fighting over control of the country, the three monks were all witness to the historical crises of that era.

One day in Diem Dien Village, Quang Binh Province, the mother of Tri Quang met two monks who left a deep impression on her, he relayed in his autobiography. Upon returning home, she told her husband that the family should have someone join the monastery, as the two monks had. Thus, on the eve of the lunar new year in 1938, Tri Quang shaved his head and entered the monastery at Pho Minh Pagoda; he was only 15 years old. The next year, he was transferred to Hue to study for another six years. When he was put in charge of the Quang Binh Province Buddhist Committee for National Salvation (seen as a part of the Viet Minh Front), he saw many of his classmates sacrifice their lives in the resistance war against the French. 

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Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, in Hue, when he was 16 years old. Source: Plum Village.

In Hue, Nhat Hanh grew up the son of a man who worked for Emperor Bao Dai’s government. Nhat Hanh stated the seed of the Great Buddha blossomed within him from when he was very young. Responding to reporter Don Lattin about his childhood, he stated that while he was studying at the village school, he and his friends would go door-to-door begging for bowls of rice to give to those dying of hunger. He relayed that the kids had to decide early on who would get to eat and who wouldn’t because there simply wasn’t enough rice to go around. In 1942, Zen Master Nhat Hanh left his family and entered the monastery at Tu Hieu Temple in Hue. He was only 16.  

In the same year, a 15-year old teenager in Thai Binh traveled to Ha Dong province (today’s Hanoi) to enter the monastery at Thanh Lam Temple. He took on the Buddhist name Quang Do. He recalled, only three years after he left his family, he witnessed his master tied up and brought out to the village courtyard like a criminal, after the Viet Minh suspected him of being a traitor. His master was then denounced and executed by three bullet rounds. It was then the young 18-year old swore to himself that he would use Buddhism’s mercy, forgiveness, and non-violence to fight against fanatics and the unforgiving.

A united sense of purpose

After the tragedy at Thanh Lam Temple, Thich Quang Do went to study in Hanoi. During this time, Tri Quang and Nhat Hanh likely met one another in Hue. 

At the time, the Bao Quoc Buddhist Institute had just been established in Hue in 1947. A year later, Tri Quang became a teacher there, and Nhat Hanh a student. 

In 1950, Tri Quang went to Saigon for the first time, concurrent with Nhat Hanh. In Saigon, Tri Quang, along with some other monks, unified three Buddhist institutes into one, locating it at An Quang Temple. Nhat Hanh began teaching here.

Both Nhat Hanh and Tri Quang had a common desire to unify Buddhism and develop it into a national religion [1]. Both pursued this desire through journalism. 

After the Geneva Accords were signed in 1954 and the country was temporarily divided in two, Tri Quang became the editor-in-chief of the Vien Am paper. A year later, Nhat Hanh was made editor-in-chief of Vietnamese Buddhism, but after two years, he was forced to suspend the paper after pushing for Buddhist unification too vociferously.

During this time period, both individuals suffered enormous mental anguish. Nhat Hanh was completely “defanged” in his struggle and afterward temporarily withdrew from the limelight, retreating to a solitary location with allies in Lam Dong. Tri Quang, haunted by images of his mother being publicly denounced in 1956, wandered to Nha Trang before returning to Hue in 1960. Buddhism’s suppression (by Ngo Dinh Diem’s government) would add an extra layer of pressure on top of his mother’s tragedy. 

In 1958, Quang Do returned to Saigon after studying abroad in Sri Lanka and India. Under Ngo Dinh Diem’s religiously discriminatory regime, and the conflict brewing between the Nationalists and the Communists hanging over their heads, young Nhat Hanh and Quang Do were not able to accomplish much in the way of big tasks. But it seems all three were able to sense impending disaster for Buddhism in the south. 

In his book Intention’s Road Home, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh explained that in 1961, when he and his friends’ place of residence was raided, he had to retreat to Saigon for safety. During this difficult time period, he traveled to the United States, where he conducted research on Buddhism at Princeton University and then taught at Columbia University.

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Pictures of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, Venerable Thich Tri Quang, and Venerable Thich Quang Do, taken in 1960. Source: PVCEB, AP, and Vietnamese Buddhists.

Days of struggle

On the night of May 8, 1963, as Venerable Tri Quang, head of central Vietnam’s Buddhist Association, stepped into Hue’s radio station together with the provincial leader to resolve ongoing protests as gunfire rang out among the Buddhist crowds surrounding the station. That night, Hue Radio did not broadcast as promised the program celebrating Vesak, recorded earlier that morning. Compounding popular anger was the fact that the government had prevented the flying of Buddhist flags. The crowds did not disperse until two in the morning. That night, many were seriously injured, resulting in eight deaths.

In the gloom of the next morning, as Venerable Tri Quang was  resting, roiling crowds of young people began filling the streets, holding Buddhist flags. That same day, Buddhists in Saigon decided to establish the Inter-party Committee to Protest Buddhism (abbreviated as the “Inter-party”), confirming a drawn-out struggle. Venerable Tri Quang sat on the Advisory Board, while Venerable Quang Do worked as assistant to the public relations committee of the Inter-party.

The objective of the Inter-party was to get the government to respond to five demands: withdraw the decree banning the flying of Buddhist flags, put Buddhism on equal footing with Catholicism, end the suppression of Buddhist followers, grant Buddhist monks and nuns the freedom to proselytize, and compensate for the deaths caused (during the crisis) and punish those responsible.

In the two days following the incident at the Hue radio station, Buddhists protested spontaneously, but thereafter, they gained a sense of order and organization with Venerable Tri Quang’s direction, the monk recounted in an autobiographical short story. He also found ways for Buddhists to come to Tu Dam Temple to pray each week for those who had passed away. In Saigon, monks organized spiritual processions from one temple to the next, as well as protests and hunger strikes.  

The government only ramped up its repression; many temples in Hue were blockaded, and monks and nuns were publicly attacked. It wasn’t until Venerable Thich Quang Duc, 73, immolated himself on June 11th, 1963 that the situation improved in any meaningful way. Tri Quang traveled from Hue to Saigon to enter into discussions with the government. 

In the weeks and months that followed Venerable Quang Duc’s self-immolation, the Inter-party signed a joint communiqué with the government responding to Buddhism’s five demands. However, the government never implemented the communiqué, greatly angering monks, nuns, and the general population. 

According to Thich Nhat Hanh, at the time he was in America campaigning for religious freedom and a cessation of war in his own homeland. He appeared on television, met journalists, translated materials detailing the human rights violations in Vietnam, and pushed international organizations, including the United Nations, to intervene in the increasingly volatile situation in South Vietnam.

As Thich Tri Quang relayed in his autobiography, on the morning of July 17, 1963, Venerable Quang Do was unable to deliver translated international press updates to Xa Loi Pagoda. That day, countless Buddhists poured into Giac Minh Temple, where the monks were on a hunger strike. These crowds quickly morphed into an enormous protest. As the Buddhist adherents tried to approach Giac Minh Temple, they were blocked by police. Venerable Quang Do was among them, directing the protests to struggle not only against the police barricade but for Buddhism itself. In his book History of the Vietnamese Buddhist Struggle, Monk Tue Giac writes that after 10 am that morning, the protests had devolved into a fighting match with police. Venerable Quang Do suffered a head injury, blood pouring down his face. Any Buddhist who had not been arrested by police returned to Giac Minh Temple, resisting as barbed wire fencing kept more than 600 monks, nuns, and adherents barricaded for 54 hours. 

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Thich Quang Do (circled) directs a protest on the streets of Saigon, July 17h 1963. Source: HORST FAAS/AFP.

By August 20, 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem’s government was determined to restore order. A day after martial law was imposed, monks were arrested and adherents attacked. Venerable Quang Do was apprehended. Venerable Tri Quang went to the American Embassy to apply for amnesty. 

From that point until President Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination on November 2, 1963, the struggle raged between Buddhists, the Army, and international pressure. 

In December 1963, after the struggle had succeeded, Venerable Tri Quang along with other monks established the Unified Buddhist Church, Venerable Quang Do went overseas for medical treatment, and Venerable Nhat Hanh returned to Saigon. 

While Venerable Tri Quang mobilized Buddhist adherents, monks, and nuns to continue the political struggle, Nhat Hanh was able to fulfill his wish of establishing several campuses, including the La Boi Publishing House, Van Hanh University, the Youth School for Social Services, and the Tiep Hien Congregation (a congregation centered on the full integration of Buddhism into daily life).

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Thich Tri Quang walks among South Vietnamese soldiers in Danang, January 1965. Source: Christian Simonpietri/Sygma/CORBIS.

In May 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh headed to the US to campaign for an end to the war in Vietnam. After three months, the South Vietnamese government refused to let him return home. At the time, Thich Nhat Hanh began becoming world-renowned as the face for peace in Vietnam. The next year, Reverend Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Thich Nhat Hanh on his way to the United States to campaign for the end of war in Vietnam. His trip was originally planned to span three months, but after he left, the South Vietnamese government refused to let him return home again. Source: PVCEB.

A road diverged three ways

At the beginning of 2005, as the people proudly and warmly greeted his arrival, Zen Master Nhat Hanh was finally able to return home after more than 40 years away, accompanied by a Sangha of approximately 200 adherents. He conducted talks with audiences that included party members in Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Hanoi. 

Meanwhile, Venerable Quang Do lived in solitary confinement, locked in a room at Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City. Across the street were police whose only job was to keep an eye on him day and night. 

During his trip, Zen Master Nhat was able to visit Venerable Tri Quang but not Venerable Quang Do.

In the eyes of the Vietnamese media, Zen Master Nhat Hanh was someone to be immensely proud of, he was “flesh and blood” who had returned to his homeland to further contribute to the people’s well being. Venerable Quang Do, on the other hand, was a boil that the government tried every means to remove. But back then, both monks were cut from the same cloth, up until the day Saigon fell. 

After 1975, as Zen Master Nhat Hanh set up his Plum Village Monastery in France, Venerable Tri Quang was imprisoned for a year and a half in a hole the size of a coffin, which he was only allowed to leave for 15 minutes each day to wash up. From then on, people no longer saw him calling for protests or making demands for Buddhism; the international media was never able to make direct contact with him again for as long as he lived.

After the war, Venerable Quang Do along with a number of other monks fought for those who had self-immolated in the name of religious freedom and in protest of the new regime’s intention to eliminate the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. In a country with no international media, no independent courts, and no freedom of association, these efforts would be in vain, the number of immolated corpses perhaps outnumbering that of the old regime. He was never able to reach a compromise with the government, up until the day he died. 

Long ago, there lived three monks: Nhat Hanh, Tri Quang, and Quang Do. When the communists arrived, the lives of these three diverged completely. 

Correction (April 12, 2020): in a version of this article, we had written that Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh had entered the monastery at Tu Dam Temple. We wish to correct this to Tu Hieu Temple, in Hue.

Footnote:
[1] See numbers 2 to 28 in Buddhism Magazine, and Intention’s Road Home (Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh).

References:

This article was written by Tran Phuong and published by Luat Khoat magazine on April 12, 2020. It was translated by Will A. Nguyen.

Religion

Vietnam Officially Announces National Decline In The Number Of Buddhist Followers, Shocking Its Buddhist Sangha

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Graphics: Luat Khoa Magazine. Photo courtesy: Buddhist demonstration in Saigon in 1963 (left, source: Posterazzi). Buddhist followers at a ceremony at Hoang Phap Pagoda in 2010 (right photo, source: Hoang Phap Pagoda).

According to Vietnam’s official statistics, in 2019, the religion with the largest number of followers in the country is Catholics with 5.9 million people. The number of followers of Buddhism is 4.6 million, ranking second. However, the numbers reported by this census contradict statistics from other state agencies, leading religious leaders and followers in Vietnam to question its accuracy.

The Giac Ngo Newspaper – a Buddhist media – reported that this news “shocked” some monks, and that some  believers “burst into tears” when they heard the news. Many people naturally assumed that Vietnam would have more Buddhists than any other religious group.

However, over the years, followers, monks and as well as senior sangha officials in Vietnam, have gone from one disappointment to another because the number of Buddhists has fallen dramatically in state statistics.

The number of Buddhists in the 2009 Population and Housing Census was 6.8 million, a decrease of about 300,000 compared to 1999. Even so, Buddhism remained the religion with the largest number of followers in Vietnam.

The situation only changed with the 2019 census results.

In that year, the government announced that the number of Buddhists decreased by 30 percent compared to 2009. From 2019, Buddhism has lost its top position in the number of followers in Vietnam according to the State census.

Over the past 50 years, Vietnam’s general population increased, but the number of Buddhist followers decreased

Buddhism – a religion of about 2,000 years of development in Vietnam – now has only 4.6 million followers, accounting for about 4.78 percent of the total population.

Meanwhile, the number of people who claimed to be Buddhist in the Republic of Vietnam (which only consisted of the south of Vietnam and a portion of the center) in 1963 was 9 to 11 million, accounting for 70 percent to 80 percent of the south’s total population as stated in the estimates that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) compiled that year.

The current figure of 4.6 million Buddhists is also less than the number of followers identified by the CIA as active Buddhists in the Republic of Vietnam in 1974, which was about 5-6 million.

After 1975, the vibrant religious culture in the south suffered a period of “government watch” for more than 15 years. During that time period, major religions were restricted in their practices and the smaller religions were completely banned.

According to State Magazine, a research journal of the Ministry of Home Affairs, in the first two censuses of 1979 and 1989, Vietnam did not record the number of religious followers.

By the early 1990s, Vietnam began to officially recognize the religions that were previously popular in the South but which were banned after 1975, such as Hoa Hao and Cao Dai Buddhism. In 1999, the government started to keep statistics on the number of religious followers in the country.

Nevertheless, as more statistics were completed, it was observed that the number of Buddhist followers were reported as having fallen. Throughout the three censuses (in 1999, 2009, and 2019), the number of Buddhists decreased by 35 percent while the national population increased by about 26 percent

Graphics from Luat Khoa Magazine based on the data sources below.

The Vietnam Buddhist Sangha refutes the state figures, but also does not publicize its own membership numbers

Looking back, in 2012, the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam opined about the number of Buddhists in Vietnam after the 2009 census results were published.

Although Most Venerable Thich Bao Nghiem, vice chairman of the board of directors and head of the Board of the Dharma Preaching of the Central Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, acknowledged the 2009 census is quite “large, serious, and objective,” he also said at the time: “The statistical results …. about Buddhism are not accurate for many different reasons.” He explained that in Vietnam, apart from those who claim to follow other religions, the rest are really “followers of Buddhism, who love Buddhism and are influenced by Buddhism”. If one accepts Thich Bao Nghiem’s reasoning, then the number of followers of Buddhism in Vietnam could have been about 78 million in 2009 – which is the number we get when we subtract all people who declared themselves to have a different religion than Buddhism from the national population at that time.

However, in 2019, the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha was again surprised when the State census stated that the number of Buddhist followers declined further and that Buddhism was no longer the religion with the most followers in Vietnam.

Despite this continuing disappointment, over the years, the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha – with nearly 40 years of operation and the only state-recognized Buddhist organization in the country – still has not published the number of its own followers. The only official figure for Buddhists in Vietnam comes from state statistics.

Meanwhile, other religions have tallied and announced the numbers of their own followers. For example, in 2018, the Vietnam Catholic Bishops’ Council announced that the whole country had about 7 million Catholics (Vietnam’s state statistics put the number at just about 5.86 million). Overseas branches of Hoa Hao Buddhism also stated that there were about 3 million Hoa Hao Buddhists in 2010 (state statistics in 2009 said just 1.3 million).

Figures for the number of Buddhist followers from other state agencies are also inconsistent

Unable or unwilling to declare the number of its own Buddhist believers, the Buddhist Sangha currently uses statistics from the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.

Accordingly, the Sangha often uses the estimate given by Tran Thi Minh Nga that she used when she wrote an article in 2014 on the website of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs. Nga said that up to June 2010, Buddhism had had about 10 million followers in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the number of Buddhists in 2009 announced by the General Statistics Office was only 6.8 million.

Nga did not cite the data source that she mentioned in her article at that time. In 2014, she was the deputy director of the Buddhist Department of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs. Currently, she is serving as the deputy head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.

In a report on religious freedom in Vietnam in 2019, the US Department of State also used data from the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, which in January 2018 stated that about 14.9 percent of the total population was Buddhist. If applying this ratio to the total population in 2019, the number of Buddhists would have been about 14.3 million.

According to Associate Professor Hoang Thu Huong of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, the National University of Hanoi, Buddhist monks believe that Buddhists must include both 1) those believers who take refuge in the Three Jewels or Triple Gem (also known as the “Three Refuges”), and also 2) those who identify themselves as being influenced under Buddhism. Dr. Huong also said that because the criteria for inclined towards Buddhism could not be included in statistics survey questions, and that could be why the number of Buddhist followers differs among different state agencies.

However, during the period of the Republic of Vietnam, the CIA recorded both of these statistics, including active believers (possibly including the Three Refuges) and self-proclaimed and sympathetic Buddhists.


(*) Data sources for the chart listed above.


This article was written in Vietnamese by Thai Thanh and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on February 18, 2021. The translation was done by Luu Ly.

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Religion

Religion Bulletin, December 2020: Falun Gong Encounters Troubles With The Authorities

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Kon Tum provincial police formally express the government’s position on Falun Gong.

To our readers:

In 2020, we began to publish monthly bulletins on religion in Vietnamese on Luat Khoa and in English on The Vietnamese in order to record events affecting freedom of religion and faith in Vietnam.

In addition to these religion bulletins, Luat Khoa also regularly publishes articles on freedom of religion and it has also created an English-language database on the same topic.

Luat Khoa’s efforts in 2020 on freedom of religion remain modest. To prepare content for 2021, we hope readers will contribute suggestions for religious topics at tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org


[Religion 360*]

Authorities accuse Falun Gong of intending to establish an opposition political force

In December 2020, provincial and municipal authorities continued to block the spread of Falun Gong.

Police and the state-run press have asked citizens not to spread Falun Gong, not to share information regarding the religion on social media, and to report to police anyone “propagandizing” the religion.

Information drawn from the state press indicates that in 2020, the authorities confiscated materials to spread Falun Gong from at least 71 people.

These people were normally stopped as they were individually handing out flyers and gifting keychains and books. No reports indicate that these people spread Falun Gong in any organized manner.

Provincial and municipal authorities have consistently blocked the spread of Falun Gong by citing that the state had yet to permit the distribution of the religion’s flyers.  

However, in December 2020, Kon Tum provincial police took this policy one step further in expressing the government’s position on Falun Gong.

Kon Tum provincial police stated that Falun Gong uses its focus on health and exercise as a cover to lure people into joining the religion. They also accused Falun Gong adherents of asking the government for legal recognition in order to form an opposition political force in Vietnam.

Below are the cities and provinces that have investigated and confiscated materials from Falun Gong practitioners in December 2020.

Hai Duong Province: Keychains with propaganda content confiscated from two people 

According to VTC Newspaper, Thanh Mien district police in Hai Duong Province investigated a 61-year-old woman for promoting  Falun Gong among students on December 2, 2020. 

The woman was investigated by police for handing out keychains containing a link to a Falun Gong website for students. Police confiscated 190 of the woman’s keychains.

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Confiscated keychains containing messages promoting Falun Gong. Photo: Hai Duong Newspaper.

Also in Hai Duong Province, police confiscated 10 greeting cards and 24 keychains belonging to a 26-year-old woman who was handing out materials promoting Falun Gong on December 23, 2020.

Quang Ninh: Falun Gong books and flyers confiscated prior to distribution

On December 29, 2020, Tien Yen district police in Quang Ninh Province reported that they had requested a woman turn in Falun Gong materials that she was storing at her residence. Police confiscated 40 books, 6 flyers, and 10 keychains containing Falun Gong content from the woman.

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Photo: Quang Ninh provincial police.

The items were confiscated for containing material promoting Falun Gong, a religion not yet permitted by the state.

Bac Ninh Province: Two Falun Gong students prevented from proselytizing by police

A number of unsourced photographs and videos shared on social media showed two Falun Gong students in Bac Ninh encountering difficulties with police on the night of December 22, 2020. 

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Photo: Vietnamese History Forum.

According to the photographs and video, a man and a woman dressed in Santa costumes on the occasion of Christmas spread Falun Gong materials in a public area. 

The police officer in the clip stated that a number of Catholics were “upset” at the pair’s actions and reported them. Police ordered the two to the police station for questioning.

State journalists have yet to report on this case.


Head of Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism’s Central Oversight Committee prevented from attending prayer ceremony

On December 15-16, 2020, Can Tho city police prevented Mr. Nguyen Van Dien, head of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism’s Central Oversight Committee, from attending a prayer ceremony.

According to the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism, on the afternoon of December 15, 2020, a group of plainclothes individuals from Can Tho city police arrived at Dien’s residence to demand that he not attend an important prayer ceremony at its temple.

On the morning of December 16, 2020, police continued to demand that a driver not take Dien to the ceremony.

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Two Can Tho city police officers sit opposite Dien. Photo: Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism.

The organization’s website stated that police stopped Dien by using COVID-19 and the ban on assemblies as a pretense. However, only Dien was prevented from attending the ceremony. Moreover, other ceremonies in the area were allowed to carry on as normal.

Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism is not recognized by the state. Members of this organization are regularly obstructed at gatherings and events.


Ho Chi Minh City authorities return five religious properties to the Saigon Archdiocese

According to the Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee website, municipal authorities  “gifted” five religious properties to the Saigon Archdiocese on December 21, 2020. The reason for this “gift” was not provided.

The Saigon Archdiocese confirmed the return of the religious properties belonging to five parishes: Tan Lap Parish, Cong Thanh Parish (District 2), Tan My Parish (Hoc Mon), Tan Hiep Parish (Hoc Mon), and Binh An Parish (District 8).

The Archdiocese website confirmed that the government had “returned” the properties to them. 

According to Archbishop Nguyen Nang’s statement during a meeting, these were religious properties that the parishes had lent to the state after 1975 to serve as schools. He stated further that the archdiocese was “delighted to receive back the properties, in order to provide necessary services for parishioners” and that he hoped the other properties would also be returned if the city was able to build new schools.

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A meeting between the Saigon Archdiocese and the Ho Chi Minh City authorities on December 2t, 2020.  Photo: Saigon Archdiocese.

After 1975, Catholic organizations in southern Vietnam lent many properties to the state for educational purposes.

To this day, the number of properties lent has not been precisely established. Conflicts between the state and the Catholic church continue to occur.


Thien An Abbey’s shrine to the Virgin Mary vandalized

In December 2020, the area around Thien An Abbey that was dedicated as the shrine to the Virgin Mary (Thua Thien – Hue Province) was trespassed upon by strangers many times.

The monks stated that many stone benches and greenery in the area were vandalized and that the grounds of the shrine were sullied with dirt. The abbey has reported the incident to the authorities, but the area around the shrine continues to be vandalized. 

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Pictures of the vandalized shrine were taken by Thien An Abbey.

For more than 20 years, Thien An Abbey has been in limbo due to a land dispute between the abbey and local residents and Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities.

Events indicate that the authorities and local households have teamed up in their land disputes with the abbey.


Government prevents the Unified Buddhist Sangha from distributing free aid

According to the Unified Buddhist Sangha, Huong Tra commune authorities in Thua Thien – Hue Province prevented the church from distributing free aid to flood victims at the end of December 2020.

Afterwards, authorities confiscated all gift vouchers and prevented residents from coming to Long Quang Monastery to receive free aid. 

The reason authorities gave for the obstruction was that as the Unified Buddhist Sangha was not recognized by the state, and therefore distributing free aid was illegal.


[On This Day]

Letter from the House of Representatives on freedom of religion in Vietnam

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Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, Edward R. Royce, and U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Daniel J. Kritenbrink. Photo: CFUS News (left), AFP (right).

In December 2017, Mr. Edward R. Royce, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, sent a letter to Mr.  Daniel J. Kritenbrink, US ambassador to Vietnam, to express his concerns about freedom of religion in the country.

In the letter, Royce expressed his concerns about the new Law on Faith and Religion, which was set to go into effect on January 1, 2018.

“I fear that this new law will form the basis for continued mistreatment of those who seek to practice their faith in Vietnam,” he wrote.

Royce’s fears have become a reality. 

In the past three years, state organizations have taken advantage of the law’s nebulous regulations to control religious activities.

Most recently, the Vietnamese Protestant Church (Southern branch) had to postpone its clerical congress for not sufficiently meeting the requirements of the Law on Faith and Religion. Specifically, they had not sent the roster of candidates to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs prior to the congress.

Royce’s fears about the Vietnamese government using ambiguous national security concerns as pretext to suppress religious activities also proved to be true. 

In a number of areas in the northwest, authorities have tightly controlled religious activities. The Protestant Church of Christ in the Central Highlands is even seen as a threat to national security. 


If you have any suggestions or would like to join us in writing reports, please email us at: tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org

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Internet Freedom

9 Takeaways From Vietnam’s Draft Decree On Personal Data Protection

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Photo courtesy: Emotiv.com.

This article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on February 18, 2021. The translation was done by the author.


It’s been almost three years since Vietnam’s National Assembly passed the highly controversial Cybersecurity Law. No guidance on the law’s implementation has been given as the central government usually does in the case of decrees, circulars, and decisions.

A draft decree was made available to the public for comments back at the end of 2018, but it quickly disappeared after receiving huge backlash from domestic and international actors.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Public Security’s website announced another draft decree which was to address personal data protection.

You can find the full text of this document in Vietnamese here (Google Drive link). The draft decree is available for public consultation from February 9 to April 9.

We have taken a look at the text and below are nine takeaways.

1. Two types of personal data

The draft decree categorizes personal data as two types: basic and sensitive.

Basic personal data includes information about personal identification, such as name, date of birth, place of birth, address, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, and ID number. One thing, however, is unclear: “data containing online activities and history.”

Sensitive personal data includes political and religious opinions; health, genes, sex, biometrics; finances; sexual life; residence; social networking; and others.

2. Individual right to personal data

Individuals have a wide range of rights regarding their personal data as follows:

  • To consent or refuse data processing by others of one’s own personal data;
  • To be informed of personal data being processed by others;
  • To demand an end of data processing; to file complaints about violations;
  • To demand compensation in cases of data abuse;
  • Sensitive personal data should not be released. Plus, no release of basic personal data is allowed should it negatively affect its owner. The draft decree doesn’t specify the term “to release personal data” and whom the data is released to besides the public, but based on the wording of Article 6, the draft seems to be only addressing releases to the public.

3. Circumstances in which personal data is being processed without consent

According to Article 10, all personal data, regardless of being basic or sensitive, is subject to being processed (collection, storing, and use) without consent in the following circumstances:

  • Matters relating to national security, public security, and public order;
  • Emergencies where the freedoms, or the health and life of the owner’s personal data or of the community’s are being involved;
  • Investigations and convictions of legal violations;
  • Conducting research and gathering statistics (after de-identifying the data);
  • Other circumstances according to the law and international treaties.

The last circumstance, “other circumstances according to the law,” is a loophole that is widely used in the legal system of Vietnam to give the government’s executive branch, especially ministries, an almost unlimited ability to interpret laws and regulations using circulars and executive decisions.

4. Personal data being processed without informing its owner

According to the draft decree, the owners of personal data are normally informed should their data be processed by government agencies or other legal actors.

However, there are three exceptions to the rule, and the most concerning is the second one (Item b, Section 3, Article 11): “In case the processing of personal data is constituted by the law, international agreements, and international treaties.”

This is another loophole in an important matter relating to the transparency of personal data processing.

5. The establishment of the Committee on Personal Data Protection

A new government agency called the Committee on Personal Data Protection is going to be established. It will be set up under the central administration.

The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) can appoint no more than six members to the Committee upon the cabinet’s approval.

The Committee is closely tied to the MPS Department of Cybersecurity and Hi-Tech Crimes Prevention as it is headquartered at the department and chaired by the department’s head officer.

6. Permit required for processing sensitive personal data

Article 20 requires that parties who want to process sensitive personal data must register with the Committee on Personal Data Protection. 

However, the Article excludes activities by government agencies relating to law enforcement, judicial procedures, heath, social security, and scientific research. That means these agencies don’t need to register. Also, the Article leaves another loophole for other authorities to exploit by attaching a clause saying “other activities according to the law.”

What remains after excluding the above-mentioned government agencies? Enterprises and non-governmental organizations, both domestic and international ones. Services such as social media, banking, and healthcare must register with the Committee.

7. Permit required for conducting cross-border transfer of personal data 

This is directly related to foreign services operating in Vietnam or domestic services operating in other countries, especially technology companies.

Article 21 states that four conditions must be met before a party can make a cross-border transfer of personal data:

  • Data owner’s consent;
  • Storing the original copy of the data in Vietnam;
  • Providing documents that prove the data receiving countries have personal data protection regulations at the same or higher level than that of this decree;
  • Obtaining a written approval from the Committee.

The second and third conditions can be waived should the data processing party provide statements regarding their commitment on protecting the data.

The data processing party must archive records of data transferring within three years, and stop transmitting data should data leaks or abuses occur, or should they no longer have sufficient capacity to protect the data, or the data owner is incapable/ having difficulties  protecting his/her rights and interests.

The Committee on Personal Data Protection will routinely inspect data transmitting parties once a year.

The requirement of storing data’s original copy in Vietnam will likely make it a bit more difficult for foreign social networks, email services, and e-commerce activities to operate in Vietnam. According to Google expert Duong Ngoc Thai, Facebook is unlikely to store users’ personal data in Vietnam but rather just cache data to make access to its services faster.

8. Administrative fines can be up to 5 percent of the total revenue of a company in the Vietnam market

Those who violate the regulations on personal data protection are subject to fines of 50 million dong or 5 percent of their total revenue in  the Vietnam market.

Simultaneously, violators can also be banned from processing personal data for 1 to 3 months and may have their data processing licenses revoked.

If not allowed to collect, store and use users’ personal data, online services will probably not be able to function the way they do currently.

The decree doesn’t specify how the government can prohibit online services from processing personal data, but the Cybersecurity Law provides the government  with the authority to order the telecommunications companies to block services and sources of information that are deemed to be harmful to society.

9. Effectivity

The draft decree is expected to take effect on December 1, 2021, as stated in the document.

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